History

The American Overseas Memorial Day Association was created in 1920 for the purpose of decorating the graves of American fallen service members buried overseas.

Prior to WW I an American Memorial Day committee operated for twenty years in France. This committee conducted annual Memorial Day ceremonies and decorated over three hundred graves of American fallen that had been buried in France. Many of these were Sailors and Marines that died in battle aboard Admiral John Paul Jones ships during the American Revolution. Additionally some are Sailors of the CSS Alabama and USS Kearsarge that died during the American civil war battle at Cherbourg France. During the WW I years the committee expanded their work to include those Americans who fell in battle serving in the AEF as well as French, British and Canadian forces.

With tens of thousands of new graves throughout Europe to decorate in 1919, support from the Red Cross, YMCA and Graves Registration Service was coordinated to decorate every American grave for Memorial Day 1919. Floral decorations were dipped in wax (Wax Flowers) and shipped two weeks prior to Memorial Day to over two thousand cemeteries in France alone. This colossal effort revealed to American leaders that a more permanent organization was needed to carry on the work and raise the necessary funds to support their work. The intent, to decorate every fallen American grave overseas each year.

Led by Ambassador Hugh Wallace the American Overseas Memorial Day Association was created May 5th, 1920. Colonel Francis Drake of the American Legion was named Chairman.  Col. Drake called attention to the service of love to be rendered by every American “Because back in the United States are fathers, mothers, sisters and widows whose thoughts on that day will turn to the soldier boy lying in some foreign cemetery. To them will not be given the consolation of kneeling by that grave and reverently laying flowers upon it”. It would be the task of the Americans living overseas to take the place of those distant relatives.

Additional founders were: Col. H.H. Harjes – Harjes-Morgan bank, Col. H.H. Fuller and Maj. L.A. Shepman – Graves Registration Service, G.L. Fairbanks – YMCA, C.L. Evans – K of C, Mary L. Dingman – YWCA, H.S. Todd – Red Cross, Walter V. Berry – American Chamber of Commerce, Dr. Edmond L. Gross – American Hospital, Constance Clark – American Womans Club, Rev. Dean Beekman – American Cathedral, N.D. Jay, Cabot Ward, Col. Bentley Mott – American Military Attache and Admiral Mc Gruder – American Naval Attache.

From this point each year the organization has decorated the graves, tombs and monuments of fallen Americans and organized and conducted ceremonies on the national Memorial Day. As well as on July 4th and other public and patriotic holidays as appropriate. Including the tomb of Lafayette.

In 1941 due to the German occupation of France and Belgium flags were not placed in the American cemeteries. However local communities still placed flowers at the American graves and hoisted the American flag over the cemeteries. A Memorial Day ceremony was held in the American Cathedral in Paris with a marble cross and star of david for each cemetery placed at the altar to represent each American cemetery. Following this a group of Americans visited the American cemetery at Suresnes and placed flowers on all the graves. During 1942, ’43 and ’44 a ceremony was held at Washington National Cathedral and the Church of the Heavenly Rest in NY in honor of the cemeteries in Belgium and France. In 1945 the work of AOMDA was immediately restored to prewar efforts with the exception that there were now a few thousand temporary battlefield cemeteries and many more new isolated graves to decorate.

Each year new American and host nation flags are shipped to cemeteries and local officials. In most cases local officials work with local schools and organize their own ceremony to commemorate and honor our Americans sacrifice and decorate our graves. In some cases the same family for multiple generations has been doing this work with great pride. For many years this work was conducted by local American Veterans and Legionnaires as members of AOMDA. However with the decline of this population living abroad the work has fallen to more local officials.

Following WW II several new cemeteries and isolated graves were created overseas and added to this work. Similar work on a much smaller scale followed the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Flags are sent direct from the American Legion to the American military cemeteries overseas. Local cemetery superintendents now coordinate the decorating in these cemeteries.

Great efforts go into continuing this mission each year. The most difficult work remains with isolated American graves. In many cases these are in remote locations that are subject to logistical, political or cultural challenges. The work that began in France over a hundred years ago is now conducted in more than two dozen countries on several continents.

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